Progress and Reaction

Recently in the west, a small segment of each generation has pushed the scope of libertarian principles[1] to include a greater slice of humanity. This inclusiveness isn’t necessarily intentional, nor is it often political. It’s a simple result of living lives free from the arbitrary constraints of inherited culture.

Thus members of non-white races, women and, to a lesser degree, children transitioned from being owned property to nominally equal members in western society. Along the way, other cultural taboos are ignored and old norms around music, dancing, art, sexuality and altered states of consciousness are abandoned by a brave few. This is the vanguard of lived cultural progress.
The Tree of Life: Progress and Reaction
The Universe of Keith Haring gives an insider’s view of one such vanguard, the community of non-straight artists, musicians, dancers and patrons that gathered in Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s. It is a staggering and beautiful example of the results of free interactions between people who have left behind the baseless moral codes and social expectations of the mainstream and have chosen to live life on their own terms.

Shadowing this generational progress when and wherever it occurs are very predictable reactionary forces. I suspect they have their roots in some form of jealousy. People who have stifled their authentic selves in the name of some bogus moral code must wonder why the free, creative beings they could have been aren’t subjected to the promised punishments. Weren’t fire and brimstone supposed to consume people who embraced their sexuality, who formed non-nuclear families, who danced and sang in unsanctioned ways[2]? Weren’t terrible things supposed to happen to women who remained unmarried, who were uncomprimising on their wants and needs? Didn’t god and everybody want families, races, cultures and ethnic groups to keep to their collective selves in their neighborhoods and hometowns and not to embrace and intermingle as individuals in distant sinful cities?

And what does it mean when nothing terrible happens to those who are bold enough to risk hellfire? A “normal” person’s one and only life has been spent following the provided rules on the premise that they are based in reality. The closeted homosexual, the wage laborer, the stifled poet, the subservient spouse look on as the vanguard live brilliant lives. What do they feel?

A few feel regret, perhaps, for not being more skeptical of the stories they were told. Most, however, feel rage. Rage at having been deceived, at having been tricked into living tiny lives circumscribed by rules based on nothing and enforced by hateful, abusive people. This rage cannot, of course, be directed at the people and institutions that taught and enforced the rules–these are too tightly intertwined in the lives of the jilted.

Instead the rage is directed at the vanguard itself–at those that revealed the social prohibitions to be false and arbitrary[3].

Locally, the victims of this rage are the Emmit Tills and Matthew Shepherds of the world, the women raped, blacks lynched, clubs, dance halls, books and artwork burned.

This potent reactionary anger is also stoked and harnessed by political forces. Those angered by societal progress can be counted on to support politicians who promise to use violence to harass, arrest and imprison non-conformists, and to look the other way when crimes are perpetrated against social outliers[4].

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, but has been with us always. Reactionary forces are forces of undoing, of destroying complexity, of violence. In an excellent example from history that I encountered recently, the vanguard of cultural progress in renaissance florence, composed most famously by the Medici sponsored artists, architects and scholars ( Botticelli, Gozzoli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei) was checked by a friar who rallied the people of florence against art, fashion, and science. Untold numbers of books and art were burned in the bonfires of the vanities. This senseless destruction of beauty and wealth is the hallmark of reactionary movements.

I could go on about this indefinitely–like so many things, we may return to it at some future date. I recommend watching The Universe of Keith Haring. It’s a moving example of what an original life and a voluntary community can be.

  1. [1] Whatever you want to call them: the don’t fuck with strangers who aren’t bothering you principle.
  2. [2] Political and religious leaders point to things like the AIDS epidemic as the “punishment” for sexual non-comformity. Pat Robertson even blames hurricanes, floods, and snow storms on homosexuality. That these bogus morality tales have any traction at all with the mainstream demonstrates how pervasive the reactionary tendency is, even among otherwise sane people.
  3. [3] An analogous situation exists around Wikileaks where mainstream anger is directed at the messenger who reveals war crimes instead of at those who actually committed the crimes.
  4. [4] For this reason, the state is always and everywhere a reactionary force. Only in the retelling of history are individual non-governmental actors replaced by politicians and laws as the agents of change
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